Makahiki is a time of celebration and renewal in Hawaii. The season’s ancient roots lie with celebrating Lono, the patron God of harvest, peace, and many other things. Makahiki is commonly referred to as “Hawaiian Thanksgiving,” and while it is certainly a season of abundance, the season is most accurately acknowledged as one of renewal, a Hawaiian New Year. The phrase “Hau’oli Makahiki Hou” is used to say “Happy New Year.” Join us and learn more about how to celebrate the Hawaiian New Year.
Makahiki: It starts with the stars
Makahiki season begins when the constellation Makali’i is visible rising above the horizon in the night sky. Makali’i is known in English as Pleiades. Makali’i means “little eyes” in Hawaiian. The constellation is easily visible with the naked eye, so it is easy to use to establish visibility conditions of the horizon for sailing and navigational purposes. To Hawaiians, the shape of Makali’i resembled that of a canoe bailer.
Ancient Hawaiians used Makali’i as position and time indicator in the sky for their navigation across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii with their outrigger canoes. According to some versions of folklore, Makali’i was the name of the navigator of the canoe of Chief Hawai’iloa, the discoverer of Hawai’i. Makali’i is the name of the third outrigger canoe built and sailed by the Polynesian Voyaging Society using traditional star navigation techniques.
The shift from Kū to Lono
Most of the year falls under Kū, the patron god of war. During the shift from Kū to Lono, war (and most work) was prohibited and it was a time to make offerings to Lono. Lono was the god of rain, clouds, thunder, lightning, agriculture, harvest, peace, and fertility. A kahuna would circle the island and collect offerings from each ahupua’a (district). They carried a banner of white kapa hung on an 18 foot pole carved at the top with the image of Lono. The ali’i of highest status would feed the attendant of Lono and make offerings and prayers to the god. The ali’i would keep a portion of the gathered offerings from the people, and redistribute the remaining supplies amongst the commoners.
A season of bountiful harvest
Though the Hawaiian islands lack the drastic seasonal changes of most other places, there are changes that affect agriculture. Lono is associated with fresh water, and Makahiki coincides with the rainy season in Hawaii. The rain is especially important on the Big Island, which has comparatively fewer bodies of fresh water compared to the other islands. Ironically, though Lono is the god of harvests and agriculture, most farming was prohibited during Makahiki. Only on specific days when the kapu was eased could farming take place. Makahiki meant feasting for ali’i and commoners alike. The season would last three to four months (depending on when moon phases fell).
Pā’ani kahiko – Makahiki Gaming and sporting revelry
Peaceful competitions of strength and skill are a mainstay of Makahiki. Though the names of over 100 pā’ani kahiko (ancient games) are known, the directions for many of them are lost to time. Games of strength kept warriors in peak physical condition for the coming war season, while games of skill taught crafting practices and critical thinking.
Makahiki contests of strength (Ho’okūkū)
- Heihei kūkini – Foot races
- Haka moa – A special type of fighting in which the contestants did not use their hands, but fought with feet, legs, shoulders, head
- Moko moko – Boxing
- Uma – Arm wrestling laying down
- Kākā Lā’au – Fencing with spears
- Hākōkō – Upright grapple wrestling
- Kula’i wāwae – Foot pushing wrestling
Makahiki contests of skill
- Kōnane – Form of Hawaiian checkers
- ‘Ulu maika – Hawaiian lawn bowling
- Moa Pahe’e – Dart sliding
- ‘O ‘O Ihe – Spear throwing
- Ihe Pahe’e – Spear sliding
- Heʻe hōlua – Hawaiian wooden sledding
- Hei – Hawaiian string figures (similar to cat’s cradle)
- Pala’ie – Catching a ball attached by string on a loop
- Hū – Kukui nut tops
- Heihei waʻa – Canoe racing
- Hukihuki – Tug of War
- No’a – A team guessing game
Beyond physical contests and games, there were also hula performances, oli (chanting) competitions, and verbal battles of wit (‘Olelo nane). Makahiki games still exist today and are played at cultural events on the Big Island and throughout Hawaii, although the purpose of the games has switched from war preparation to the perpetuation of Hawaiian traditions.
Makahiki and Captain Cook
Captain James Cook arrived on Hawaii Island in 1779, landing at Kealakekua Bay during the Makahiki season. Kealakekua Bay was considered a sacred harbor of Lono, and the arrival of Cook during Makahiki was auspicous. The white sails of Cook’s ship greatly resembled the white cloth associated with Lono, and they recognized Cook as a figure of power and authority. Cook and his men were treated well, feasting and observing Makahiki games such as Moko Moko (boxing), pictured in this 1779 drawing. On February 4, 1779, the British ships sailed from Kealakekua Bay, but rough seas damaged the foremast of the Resolution and they were forced to return. When Cook returned, it was during the time of Kū and interactions quickly turned hostile. A battle ensued, and Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay. Though some accounts claim Hawaiians ate Cook, this stems from a misunderstanding of Hawaiian funerary customs. In Hawaiian tradition, the stripping of flesh from bones and purification of said bones to be distributed amongst chiefs was an honor awarded to individuals of high status. Today, a monument belonging to England stands at Kealakekua Bay to mark where Cook was killed.
Makahiki in modernity
Many national and state parks host Makahiki festivals, with demonstrations of cultural activities, Makahiki sports and games, and traditional crafts. Makahiki festivals may also feature Hawaiian music and hula. Though Makahiki season traditionally would start in mid-October, most modern Makahiki festivals occur in November. Though festivals are cancelled this year, you can celebrate Makahiki at home. Instructions for many Makahiki games and sports can be found at Ulukau.org.
Prepare or buy Hawaiian foods such as poi, kalua pig, lau lau from local retailers and farmers. Taro, bananas, coconuts, sweet potatoes, and breadfruit are all traditional food crops. Buy some haupia (coconut milk jelly pudding) or kulolo (baked taro coconut pudding) for dessert. In the tradition of Makahiki, consider sharing food resources within your ahupua’a (district) or wider island community to make sure everyone can partake in the feasting time.